Remembering a Special Colby-Sawyer Teacher

By Sally Williams Cook ‘74

I had the pleasure of writing about famed children’s book illustrator/author Tomie dePaola, who was my teacher at Colby Junior College (now, of course, Colby-Sawyer) from 1972 to 1974, for the Fall 2016 Colby-Sawyer Magazine. Sadly, Tomie passed away one year ago on March 30, 2020, at the age of 85. It seems fitting to remember this amazing man who had such a huge impact on the children’s book world and who changed my life as a young college student.

Graduating from a large suburban high school in a class of 800 students, I had a keen interest in journalism and theater, yet little idea how to achieve my dreams or if my ambitions of writing books or working in the theater someday were even tenable. That is, until I arrived at Colby-Sawyer in the fall of 1972, the same year that young Tomie came to campus.

It was easy to follow one’s passions on such a bucolic campus set on a windy hilltop. We were 600 young women strong back then, and many of our nurturing professors made us feel like we could do anything. So eventually I followed my passion and signed up for a theater course. I’ll never forget meeting Tomie for the first time.  Exuberant, colorful and wildly enthusiastic, he encouraged his students to “go for it.” Even on the darkest New England winter days, Tomie wore bright scarves and laughed loudly and often.

As I mentioned in my 2016 article, we built a set for Puccini’s only English opera, “Sister Angelica.” Most of us had no idea what we were doing. But Tomie was encouraging and bold and insisted that if we put our minds to it, we could create a masterpiece — and we did! Tomie seemed to have all the time in the world for his students and would often bring a home-baked loaf of bread or a recipe for his favorite Italian cookies to class. He rarely talked about himself, so I had no idea that he was writing and illustrating what would become one of his most famous books, Strega Nona. Published in 1975, the book garnered a coveted Caldecott Medal, which annually recognizes the “most distinguished American picture book for children.”

After graduating from Skidmore College in 1976 and moving to New York City, I often thought back to my two years at Colby-Sawyer and building sets with Tomie. Whenever I was hesitant about approaching new adventures, I remembered his “go for it” attitude, his books and how he lived life passionately and fully. In the early 1990s when I was a feature writer for the Associated Press, I had the opportunity to write a piece about Tomie’s numerous Christmas books and his passion for the holiday. By this time, he had written and illustrated many of the 260 books he would eventually create. Tomie and I met in a café for the interview. He hadn’t changed much in 20 years. He had that same jolly laugh and enjoyed regaling me with publishing stories. The only difference was that his wild, curly hair had now turned white. I told him he reminded me a bit of Santa, my favorite mythical being. He smiled broadly.  I feel fortunate that I was able to thank Tomie for encouraging and motivating a tender young student.

Sally Williams Cook ’74 is the award-winning author of eight books for children and adults.

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